I took advantage of a wonderful opportunity to go to the Ali Museum today. They offered a special screening of an upcoming HBO Documentary, Ali & Cavett: the Tale of the Tapes. Both the film’s writers, Robert Bader and Dick Cavett, were on hand doing interviews and signing copies of the poster in the screen shot above. HBO starts running it on Tuesday, 11 February, this next week, and I highly recommend it. Though I still remember the day the Champ died, as well as the outpouring of love and grief that Louisville offered him as his funeral cortege wound through town, I think today marked a moment of recognizing the loss of that great man, Muhammad Ali, which I had not accepted until now.
Ali had me as a fan from the moment I first heard of him, in February, 1964. I was ten, and my Dad had told me stories of many famous fighters he’d followed over the years. Such a tiny, vulnerable fellow as I was, I delighted in stories of heroes. Sonny Liston, the “Big Bear” whom no one wanted to fight, was one of the hardest punchers ever. Folks said he couldn’t be beat. So, when this brash youngster, Ali—then Cassius Clay—from my home town was due to step into the ring with him of the 25th of that month, I leapt at the chance to cheer for him, which marked one of the first memorable times my opinion dared differ from my Dad’s. He disliked Ali, echoed “The Louisville Lip” name that Ali drew from his outlandish self-promotion.
Watching the news with Dad, I saw the clips of Ali from around town. I learned that he’d even won the Olympic Gold Medal in the Rome games, though that was way before I started to follow Olympic sports. I was just drawn to Ali. Looking back at those early films, hearing Cavett talk about the man he knew, I was reminded of that conflict with my father, which, I suppose, mirrored the conflict that most white people felt with Ali. And though my Dad raised me to be fair and unprejudiced, there was this sense of Ali being ‘uppity’ which grated on my nerves, especially when it showed my Dad’s prejudices. Dad would say that Ali wasn’t a good spokesman for Louisville, that he had no respect, and I had to be quiet about the notion that I didn’t think Ali owed Louisville more respect than he was given.
But looking at this film, I saw much of what captivated me about Ali, then and now. That he was intelligent was obvious from the way he spoke. I often thought, then and now, that it was a basic white prejudice that allowed a sort of shocked surprise in white people at Ali’s intellect, like a black man couldn’t be smart. That made me sad, then, and still does. Yet, in the film and in his comments, Cavett expressed his exuberance for Ali’ seeming youthfulness. Yet when I was a boy, I knew that Ali was something more than I was. I saw his prowess in the ring and took note of the way he carried himself at all times, and I knew it wasn’t childishness or even child-likeness. It was, rather, greatness of mind and heart.
That aspect of Ali was one that I grew to appreciate as he dealt with his devotion to Islam and his resistance of the draft. I don’t know of a boy my age at that time who believed that he wanted to graduate high school and go to Vietnam. Speaking just for myself and those few lads I knew who were honest with me about it, we saw Vietnam as a death sentence. We had proof of it on the nightly news. It was horrifying, the napalm, the lack of a clear enemy, the maimed bodies that returned. We might have pretended to fight Germans of the Japanese when we played soldiers, but we could see that Vietnam was different. I never blamed Ali for not wanting to go, and I didn’t even have a religious conviction about it. Mainstream Christianity, at the time, seemed fine with sending young men into that meat grinder and burying their remains—with blessings, proclaiming their sacrifice. As far as I could see, the Vietnamese people didn’t want us there any more than the Communists, but both groups at war? Disaster. I was on Ali’s side.
And despite folks trying to brand him as a man who spread a message of hate, I had never seen Ali approach another person, white or black, with anything less than respect, even Howard Cossell! In fact, it seemed like they were friends, like Ali and Cavett were friends. The film recounts many different kinds of interviews between Cavett and the Champ. There were some ofter his losses, and never will you see a sportsman more classy and honest in his defeat. It takes even greater strength to accept and learn from defeat than victory, and in his few losses in the ring, Ali showed massive respect for his opponents, at the same time he held on to his belief in himself. That’s something that people might never get cozy with, that sort of honesty and class. And these are some of the finest moments in the film, as far as I am concerned. They remind me of my own desire to meet him, which never happened, as it never happened for countless other men, all over the world. Most of us never got the chance to shake the hand of one of the most dynamic people ever, but we value what he left us, his legacy of excellence.
This film is living history, and I’m delighted that I saw it. There was one other thing I noted. There have been many in my life who said of Ali, “If he fights in the ring, why won’t he fight for his country?” This piece of superficial logic always seemed like such an “apples and oranges” thing to me. Fighting for one’s country is a far cry from sport. I saw that clearly in those news reports on Vietnam. I have seen it since in the films of rockets being sent from miles away to a strike a target about the size of a postal envelope. There is no sport, no set of rules, in war that make it like trying your skill in the ring against another man. When it gets right down to it, I think Boxing itself is a bad sport, brutal, abusive, and often criminal. I’m beginning to think the same about pro football, and I’m a lifetime Bears fan. There is something beautiful in sport, though, that is missing in war, especially wars that are fought without good reason. Agreed, there are moments of glory and sacrifice in war, when one soldier fights for those beside him. I don’t think Ali would have a problem like that.
In many ways, ways which I find in my own mind these days, with both Republicans and Democrats seeming to vie for party power over good governance, I’d answer that piece of superficial logic in another way: Why would he not fight for his country, since he fights in the ring? Show him that it really is his country, show him something he can believe in. At the time, Ali—any black man and quite a few of his white brothers—didn’t feel that it was his country. He was just born here. I look at that Bader film and I can ask a better, more patriotic question of my own: What, in his actions and demeanor make anyone think that Ali wasn’t fighting for his country? I believe he did. Watch the HBO Documentary this coming Tuesday night, and I think you will too.